???️ Is It time To Reclaim The Beautiful Game Once And For All?

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The comments of Arsene Wenger over the summer regarding the current state of transfers in football have the ability to either come to be viewed as indicative of his lessening grip on the pulse of the game or, perhaps, one in the long line of prophetic statements that have so often accompanied his successes in England. The long-serving Arsenal chief, in response to Neymar’s departure from Barcelona for PSG in an eye-watering £198m switch, expressed the view that this summer represented a landmark watershed moment in the history of the sport and that clubs would have to learn to adapt and do so fast, or else watch powerless as the richest clubs in the world tighten their grip on the world’s best talent, which one would imagine would serve to reduce the game a two-tier plutocracy; the old guard amongst Europe’s elite playing second fiddle to the game’s nouveau riche. In a summer where PSG and Manchester City – both sides in question, with all due respect, former also-rans of their respective domestic scenes – parted with no less than £756m in transfer fees alone between them, a visible gap between the game’s emerging bourgeoisie and their less wealthy rivals has surfaced and it would not be melodramatic to suggest it will only get worse.   As La Liga president Javier Tebas pointed out this week in his assessment that the Qatari-backed Parisien outfit had been “caught peeing into their own swimming pool” in the wake of Neymar’s storied arrival at the Parc de Princes, there is a growing feeling of toxicity towards the oil-rich new kids on the block, Tebas in the same breath accusing the Ligue 1 side alongside Manchester City of “financial doping”. One would perhaps offer the defence that Tebas’ outburst represents nothing more than, more accurately, the unease within Spain regarding what chiefs at Barcelona and Real Madrid may see as a gradual changing of the guard in the European game. The loss of Neymar to a club that only ten years previously would have struggled to have been thought of in the same breath as the likes of Marseille, Lyon, Lille and St Etienne in their own league, had now plucked an undeniably world-class talent from the coffers of arguably the biggest club in the world of the past decade, FC Barcelona. It is easy to see the reaction of Tebas and, indeed, Barcelona president Jose Maria Bartolomeu as nothing more than the Spanish chiefs throwing their toys out of their proverbial prams but it is difficult to look past the departure of Neymar for PSG as symbolising something more than a move that is a simply another transfer between two clubs. The obvious point is that as a record breaking transfer, the fee involved usurps anything the game has previously witnessed. More important, however, is significance of Neymar’s transfer from a political and symbolic angle and in terms of PSG’s growing stature in the game. Clearly, something has to give and the dismay of chiefs in Spain smacks of the realisation of the shockwaves that this summer have sent around the world; the once unsurmountable jewels in the crown of the European game, Barcelona, left licking their wounds after a summer long soap opera of a transfer window that has made the club look more like “the sick man of Europe” than anything else.   What a difference a summer makes.   Granted, in the fickle world we live in these days it is easy to lose perspective and Barcelona, with Messi, Suarez and £130m Dembele- the latter in the place of the departed Neymar- are still, undeniably, a force to be reckoned with and one of the most feared outfits in the European game. Who would bank against them being in and amongst the teams fighting it out to be Europe’s top dogs in Kiev next May with the firepower still in their ranks? You’d be brave to. This said, one cannot deny that theirs is an ageing outfit; both Messi and Suarez are now over the age of thirty, as well as captain Andres Iniesta and defensive stalwarts Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano. Clearly a lot of work is still required to maintain the levels of success that the Barcelona sides of the last decade have enjoyed. This success has saw them, alongside Real Madrid, dominate the European game and after their antics this summer, only they will know just how much they will need to step up their efforts in the years that come in order to keep up with the likes of PSG. Although their last triumph in the UEFA Champions League came only a meagre two years ago it somehow now feels like a long time has passed since; such is the changing face of the European game. The once impregnable hegemony that the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid has asserted over the European game that, let’s not forget, has delivered no less than eight European Cups between them since the turn of the century, looks in serious threat of being toppled. The signings of Neymar and Mbappe adds over £300m worth of talent to the ranks of the Parisiens’ arsenal and if both players are able to produce the sort of form that their price tags suggest they should be capable of then it would be hard to look past the Ligue 1 runners up as favourites for the competition come May. Money talks and it has spoken loud and clear this summer. The message is simple, spend or get left behind. The romantics amongst us will, no doubt, point to the triumphs of Leicester in the Premier League in 2016 and their entirely commendable showing in the UEFA Champions League in the following campaign as the biggest sign in recent times that the magic of the game is still there but I can’t help but side with Arsene Wenger as the dust begins to settle on the most bizarre and, at times, unsettling transfer window to date. The game has always threatened to reach this level of indulgence but this was the summer where, as Wenger pointed out, the naysayers were finally proved right.   So, where does this leave the rest of us?   Of course Liverpool, perhaps inadvertently one may suggest, were directly involved in the saga that would ensue following Neymar’s departure from the Nou Camp. Barcelona, tasked with replacing the Brazilian, targeted his countryman Phillipe Couthino in a bid to fill the void left by the Paris bound winger, only to be consistently rebuffed by the Reds eventually to the tune of £118m, who refused to let their prized asset depart Anfield. Barcelona, for context, also flexed their financial muscle slashing in excess of £120m on Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele, again after a protracted saga in which the German press accused the Catalonians of “dirty tactics” as they vied to secure the Frenchman’s signature. The same could have been said of their approach for Coutinho who fervently agitated for a move from Anfield in the last weeks of the window in a mirror image of what was occurring in Germany at the same time involving Dembele. This,of course, flared up a separate issue regarding the power of players over clubs and managers that seemed to reach unprecedented levels this summer. Both players in question, one should note, had professed in the wake of a bid from Barcelona that they would not play for their respective clubs again. Arsene Wenger prophetically at the start of the window predicted this kind of situation occurring, perhaps talking from experience with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain clearly mooting over departing the Emirates during the period in question. A lot of this, or course comes down to contracts, and this is where the players according to Wenger now have the power. The aforementioned Sanchez and Chamberlain as well as Ozil, made it clear to Wenger their intentions to depart North London and with only one year left on their respective deals it was clear that Wenger and the club were powerless to these players eventually departing the club. This, of course plays into the hands of clubs also who would be unwilling or, more accurately, simply unable to pay the kind of fees that PSG did for Neymar and Mbappe for a player under contract. Rather, clubs will be able to pick up both Sanchez and Ozil, who both stayed at Arsenal beyond the transfer deadline for either a reduced fee in January or for nothing in July.   The Bosman ruling is nothing new of course, but it is not wide of the mark to say that almost twenty years since its inception, the ruling is about to come into fruition like never before. Wenger did offer the opinion that in order to ensure that the kind of fees that PSG have been able to pay this summer are kept to a minimum he envisages a situation whereby all players will eventually for the sake of the club and player, sign short term deals, therefore, meaning clubs can afford players that are still under contract and players can also have more freedom to move and not feel tied down to a long term contract with little hope of a switch if a better opportunity arises elsewhere, as Coutinho and Van Dijk, for example, have experienced this summer.   Clearly the departure of Neymar from Barcelona has left a sour taste for those the powers that be in Catalonia and has left La Liga chiefs in a state of panic regarding the rise of PSG, the likes of Tebas left agonizing over, one would presume the anticipation that, for the first time perhaps since the mid 2000’s the hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid over the European game may finally be showing to fray. Their concerns, are of course understandable, profits, after all, are inexcusably ultimately linked to a club’s performances on the pitch. A club, after all, is only able to market what happens on the pitch. If, however unlikely it seems, Neymar, for example, flatters to deceive in his maiden campaign in Paris, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that we may be viewing the Parisiens as a bloated mismanaged menagerie on a scale that would dwarf even Barcelona’s misgivings during this summer’s unflattering transfer window come next summer. Sure, what that would signify would be nothing more than another episode in the carousel of one-upmanship that the game’s biggest detractors have levelled at it for many years now more so than anything. The dismay of chiefs in Spain may, frankly, turn out to be the ace in the pack for all of us that support a club other than one backed by the likes of the kind of oil magnates that have turned Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG into the forces they are today. The aforementioned Tebas, the president of La Liga has, of course, vowed in no uncertain terms to consign the oil oligarchs that have changed the complexion of the game, seemingly, forever, to history. Whether that turns out to be sour grapes on Tebas’ part or a promise remains to be seen. Granted, his intentions to force FIFA to investigate the clubs in question over their spending may well fall on deaf ears and, what’s more, it would be almost understandable if FIFA’s response was to simply not intervene on the grounds that the intentions of the La Liga giants is simply to ensure their dominance over the European game is not tempered by the cash-splashing nouveau riche that Spanish chiefs will acknowledge are already beginning appear to be gaining the upper hand as was symbolised by Neymar’s decision to depart La Liga for Ligue 1 this summer. One thing is for sure, if Tebas’ actions are as good as his word, then the game may be about to enter an extremely politically charged era.   Rumours abounded during the transfer window that in the wake of Neymar’s departure from Barcelona, the world’s biggest clubs including clubs from Spain, England, Germany and Italy met in Monaco in a bid to reach an agreement not to sell to the emerging oil-rich clubs of Europe, namely Manchester City and PSG. It is unknown how much truth was in these rumours and to suggest that they are completely unfounded does not seem out of the question. The unmistakeable fact is, however, that this summer marked a visible schism in the power struggle between the established elite and the nouveau riche in Europe, and, if Tebas is to be believed, it will definitely not end here.   Like the president of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet pointed out only this week, Europe’s old guard simply “fear PSG’s ambition” and it’s hard to disagree with him. The money that has been parted with in this transfer window in not only the two transfers involving Neymar and Mbappe but the subsequent deals that occurred in the inflated market that was left following these deals is nothing less than scary. PSG, granted, are now under investigation from UEFA over an alleged breach of the Financial Fair Play ruling that has seemed to have meant less and less every year since its inception and one would hope, for the good of the game, that PSG will at long last be put in their place over their spending exploits this summer in what would be a triumph for the game itself. The accusations of ???sour grapes’ from chiefs in Spain are, of course, not completely unfounded and clearly the despairing Tebas and Bartolemeu will be more concerned over the possibility that the rise of the nouveau riche in the European game will negatively impact on their once seemingly untouchable prestige and profits than they are for the impact of the likes of PSG and Man City on the game itself. This aside, for the football to remain, as the old adage goes, the beautiful game, it is vital that the soap opera that was this summer is never repeated.   By Tom Beattie
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